In honor of the Polish wedding I am attending today in Heildelberg, I’ve resurrected an essay in letter form I wrote more than three years ago, a week before I left Wrocław, Poland, to move to Leipzig. It’s perhaps as much a “love letter” to the vodka Żubrówka as it is to the crazy, unforgettable year (except for the nights I don’t remember) I spent as an Erasmus Mundus student in what would become one of my favorite cities ever, whose party map I came to know like the palm of my hand. I also managed to write my Master thesis and get a degree (the courses I took at the university were quite good, actually, and I was a very active participant). Na zdrowie to that!
Wrocław, August 22nd, 2012
Dear Polish Vodka Żubrówka,
You meet so many people I doubt you remember me. The first time I saw you was in the hands of an Argentinean from my Wrocław dorm, on a movie night where about 10 people from various nationalities squeezed into the not-so-big room I was sharing with two other girls. We had barely moved in. How did he find you so fast? You looked strange to me as you settled down with the Argentinean in the middle bed, our makeshift couch, sporting your yellowish coloring and blade of grass inside bison are supposed to like. (I had always known vodka as colorless.) The Argentinean was more familiar. He had been the first person I met with whom I’d be spending that semester – he just happened to be sitting in the wagon I got into, of the train from Berlin to Dresden to Wrocław.
I had immediately struck up a conversation with him as he chivalrously helped me with my bags, and found out we would be going to the same Polish dorm and university. We talked all the way to our destination, and the person picking him up brought me and my bags and a new Ukrainian arrival and her bags along as well to the dorm. Us three international students wouldn’t shut up on the way to the dorm, despite the exhaustion, and kept going all evening looking at churches and monuments and drinking beer together at Rynek (the central square). We were instant friends. She became my roommate. We would sometimes walk to Polish class together in the yellow Baroque university building, passing 70’s communist-style buildings and then across the Old Town with its Gothic cathedrals and metal bridge with love-vow-inscribed padlocks hanging all over (diverse architecture here, indeed). Then we would hang out after class as well, doing some pretty universal stuff – talking bullshit, watching bad YouTube videos, cooking together, trying new alcohol. But despite all the alcohol I would meet in Poland, you, Żubrówka, would become the most memorable.
So the Argentinean and Ukrainian and I, as well as a few Germans and an American and for a while Czechs and Slovaks, I think, were all there watching the movie – “Scott Pilgrim vs. the World.” All I remember about the movie is a boy falling for a girl “out of his league” and getting her interest only to find out she has evil ex-lovers he has to fight videogame-style. (And perhaps that’s all there is to it.) I was doing my best to pay attention, really, as you, Żubrówka, worked your magic. I had my first sip and didn’t like you much then – you were like a grass and butterscotch shake (not that I’ve ever had one), but also intensely dry and burning. But I decided I’d give you another chance. Over time I have been learning not to dismiss people or things on a bad first impression, to be open to acquired tastes. With the shitload of chances I gave you that night, I think I drank at least a third to half of you. The Argentinean and American helped finish you off, but I don’t think anyone in that room got as drunk as I did that night, and I don’t think I had ever been as drunk before or have been as drunk since.
Vodka can be a spiritual experience. I started getting very philosophical and told one of the German girls she needed to pursue a major life change, and I remember her agreeing with me (I don’t know if she did that to humor me or because she actually believed). Then I started talking about the affinity I have with German people and Germany (without ever imagining I would move to Germany one day), and my friends and I decided I had been a German cat in my past life. Perhaps, Żubrówka, you are a religious experience too. I also sang, and one of my friends captured it on video. I don’t remember singing, but watching the video, I decided I had never sounded so bad in my entire life.
Vodka can also be a mind-eraser. I don’t remember two hours of that night, but at least my bed was right next to me and I woke up in it the next afternoon. But I do remember throwing up into my Ukrainian friend’s laundry basket as she rushed to me with it, and my then-boyfriend calling mid-barf (I can’t believe I picked up the phone and even managed to make sense for him). For I while I wanted nothing more to do with you, Żubrówka – but like a rollercoaster relationship one keeps returning to, I couldn’t let you go. And things worked out more smoothly between us as I got used to the way you are, and learned to savor rather than inhale you.
Vodka is a treacherous witch and a trusted friend. You and I would come to share many other noteworthy moments. Like that time of the 90’s costume party at a Polish friend’s house, when a German guy and I quickly hit it off as acquaintances and spent the whole night dancing together as he proceeded to give me every other shot of the Żubrówka bottle he toted in. And the time during a get-together in my apartment when my Polish roommate’s friends scared off my international friends (who had brought in a Żubrówka bottle as their contribution to the evening) by joking about orgies. And how, in my latest trip around northern Europe, I filled up my one clear plastic bag allowed as a carry-on item on flights with four Żubrówka bottles (bison grass and clear varieties) instead of toothpaste and deodorant. I gave the bottles as gifts to my hosts in different countries, and in Finland it helped lead to conversations into the night and a taste of Finnish schnapps to return the favor. In Riga, another stop on the same trip, I didn’t have any Żubrówka on me to share, but did talk about you and this helped establish a common like between me and a cute guy I met.
You have become my Polish greeting card, Żubrówka, and will forever be linked in my memory with Poland and making new and interesting friends and experiencing a wonderful mix of epiphanies and embarrassment. Can’t wait to taste, and share, more of your kind. Friends and I will spend time with your sister brown Żubrówka tonight.